a step toward clarity

 For my thesis, I plan to do a digital poetry project centered around Allen Ginsberg and his emerging status as a writer in the Beat Generation. A lot of what I want to do is inherently inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, in that Ondaatje utilizes unique and interesting multimodal techniques to build up the character of Billy. It plays with perspective, truth, and voice, as well as other postmodern themes and concepts. The collection of poems all focus on Billy and his world, and fleshes out the realm in a way that seems very intimate for the reader. With that being said, Allen’s world is also like that – his poetry is rooted in being very honest and personal with his audience, and is all about throwing in the people and places in his life without giving any context whatsoever. His poetry does not care and does not ask for the reader to know who Peter is – it just wants the reader to accept that Peter is there.

With that being said, I make a collection of poetry that does the same for Allen. I want to build up the Beat world, with no prior knowledge needing to be known – I want the reader to be engaged, regardless of the context. Additionally, I want it to be done in a digital space. I think having the thesis as a digital poetry project is important in the storytelling aspect of it, because digital spaces allow for interdisciplinary elements and techniques. I want to incorporate audio, visual, transitions, hypertext navigation, and an overall cyclical feel to the world, as opposed to any traditional linear storytelling methods. I will use primary letters, poems, drafts, text, and photos to build the authenticity of the world, and have them present throughout the piece of digital poetry.

The significance, ultimately, is going to be one that is personal to me, as well as other writers. I want to focus particularly on Ginsberg from the 1940s-1950s, and his emergence as a writer. Unlike many people, Ginsberg seemed to have a lot of self-confidence – at least on the outside, anyways. I want to explore his psyche, explore his insecurities, as he launches himself to be the figurehead of such a distinct literary movement. I want to illustrate his frustrations and worries with faux rough drafts, which in themselves become apart of the poetry collection. I also want to write “fake” poems from his voice, as well as voices from others, to add to what was happening in his world, and what was happening with his writing. Maybe it was his jealousy over Kerouac’s success, or depressed writer’s block because of his failed love affair with Neal. Ultimately, I want to tell Ginsberg’s story, maybe taking some fictional liberty with his character, to explore the journey of becoming a writer, and maybe how that also parallels to my own journey, too.

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ride the reel

I’ve been thinking about films lately as a resource – I think partially after Alan emailed me about finding little glimpses of the Beats, even in movie credits (sorry I never replied! I did read it, though!), and also partially because of our fangirling over things like Moana. There’s been a few movies about the Beat Generation, especially over the past ten years. Most notably, there has been Howl (2010), where Ginsberg is portrayed by James Franco, who surprisingly does a great job at acting and sounding him. A live adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road was made in 2012, too. Most recently, though, was a movie made from the novel Kerouac and Burroughs collaborated together on about their experiences getting away with murdering Lucien Carr’s ex-lover and professor. The novel, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, turned into more of a toxic love story between Carr and Ginsberg called Kill Your Darlings (2014). Another fun fact: Daniel Radcliffe, our beloved Harry Potter, plays Ginsberg in this movie, which I think was very generous of the producers. Don’t get me wrong – I love Ginsberg, but he was not a very handsome dude.

All of this has a point, though, instead of just naming off some good movie suggestions! I know I want to explore Ginsberg’s psyche, toying with the accuracy of the character, but there have people who have already done that for creative purposes – actors. I’m wondering if there are some interviews with actors like Franco and Radcliffe, where they talk about their experience in becoming Allen. After all, it’s more than just putting on a pair of dark-framed glasses and running around naked. Franco, too, is an English professor at Columbia, so he has a pretty analytical and interesting perspective:

I think their information is very valuable, and can definitely be used as a reference – maybe even, when I get to the digital part, I can even rip and embed audio soundbytes from Franco or Radcliffe talking about “being Allen.”

poet? writer? gunslinger extraordinaire?

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Last week, I had more of an epiphany toward what I wanted my project to be about – I can feel myself closing in more on the idea I want my thesis to be. I think there are many elements presence, but slowly, they’re starting to manifest themselves and become a more solid concept. I knew I wanted to write about Ginsberg, and I knew I wanted the project to be a digital poetry one, but I kept struggling with the significance of the work in relation to myself. Why do I want to write this, and what can other people, hopefully, gain from it?

With that being said, I  think the answer itself lies in the question. At this age (any age, really), we struggle for validation. We struggle because we want what we do and contribute to this world to hold some importance, and for people to say, “Ah, yes! That’s not complete bullshit – there’s something there.” I’m struggling with accepting calling myself a “writer,” a “poet” – it feels wrong to identify as that without being a published artist. On top of it, I feel like I’ll never be a true “writer” – I feel like whatever I do is subpar, has been done before, or it’s just generally not good enough to be seen in my field as valid literary work. Objectively, I’m sure this is just a normal human experience – I’m sure even Ginsberg, no matter how convinced of a “prophet” he was, struggled with his identity as a writer. I’m sure, during his twenties, he didn’t know if what he was doing was good enough. I’m sure all artists have had these experiences, and it’s apart of the process – and that’s something I want to highlight in my project, the insecurity of putting yourself out there when creating art.

I already knew I wanted to possibly create “fan” drafts of earlier poems he wrote, and this would fit in perfectly with the theme. Additionally, this past week, I’ve started reading his journals from the mid-fifties, collected by Gordon Ball. I’ve been highlighting and creating a timeline, feeling out more of the historical accuracy of where he was and what he was doing and thinking. I know it’s been suggested to maybe play around with his psyche and add a little bit of color and leniency in his character, but first I want to document for what it is.

I’ve also been revisiting Ondaatje and making notes of specific interdisciplinary techniques he used in BtK. I want to highlight the multimodal elements that I’ve found have given the collection its sense of timelessness in its surreal and postmodern, fragmented world.

Basically, things are coming along. I still need a concrete idea I can put into a sentence that completely envelopes my thesis, but I think it’s almost there (at least, I hope!) But who knows? It can change the more I delve into Allen’s world, and that’s okay too – it’s just personally comforting to know that I’m mapping out a general direction.

billy’s brother

Guess who got to return to Erie? I did! And it was not all for fun, but for business – thesis business, if you can believe it! I wanted to go back to the source for my exposure to Ondaatje’s work in order to ask questions. So, I got to grace my old adviser and poetry-guru, Dr. Jeffrey Roessner, with my presence (that’s right, y’all haven’t seen the last of me!).

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I used to go to Hogwarts for my undergrad, no biggie.
I explained the basis for what I wanted to do, and told him I was planning on a digital beat poetry project that could use the same multimodality and character-building of Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid. I then asked him if there were any other books of poetry in the same vein of Billy the Kid – after Ondaatje had written that collection of poetry, he wrote another book with a completely different form, and so on. He suggested a poem we had read in our Contemporary Poetry class (the same where we read BtK), “Ellen West” by Frank Bidart. It’s also a longer poem written in the point of view of this “historical character,” and experiments with form, although not to the same extend as BtK. Bidart takes an account of an institutionalized anorexic woman, and writes poems from her point of view, as well as implements actual medical records and the doctor’s own accounts of how the woman is doing – a very moving piece that starts to build those same multimodal experiences as how Ondaatje and other pieces of e-lit would.

We also took a look at the Northon Anthology of the American Hybrid. Honestly, we didn’t find a lot there, but I made a note to take a look at Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely – I think it might do a bit of the same experimentation of form and different elements of media, but it isn’t a character poem, so much a personal poem.

(From there, we got on a discussion about Slyvia Plath and how she [unintentionally] ruined poetry. While she and Ginsberg both were authentic and personal with their audiences, as well as self-obsessed, the content of what they were sharing were both different – my observation is that Plath was going on and on about her emotions and suicidal thoughts, while Ginsberg was talking about peoples’ assholes… and let’s face it. Assholes are way more interesting than any more of that “deep, dark” confessional stuff, but I digress.)

Additionally, as we were talking a little bit more of what I was planning on doing, and how it related to my undergrad thesis that Dr. Roessner had overseen, I had an idea of potentially how I wanted it to be digitally set up. I know I wanted to scan pictures and implement them on a website of sorts, but I think I might have the basis of the project be Ginsberg’s apartment studio from the 1950s. It will work like how you take virtual reality tours, but it’s clickable – kind of like those old PC story games in the late 90s and early 2000s.

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For example, you can click on a typewriter or piece of paper, and a poem will pop up – or click on a record player, and maybe an early recording of “Father Death Blues” or jazz will play. Part of this reminds me of an e-lit piece we explored last year, too – it was one about this woman’s life and her relationships, and you could go through the rooms and hit different objects to make different noises and to see some writing. I’ll have to go back to the Electronic Literature collection and find it when I get more into the creation of the digital space, but I’m excited.

Basically, the recap of the weekend was that I still can’t find any works that do what Billy does (on paper, anyways). It’s a mixture of persona poems, hybrid narrative, historical fiction, and interdisciplinary elements, which make it a unique work. While BtK might not have a twin, I’m certain there’s maybe a distant relative or second, second cousin that I can add to my references.

first thoughts

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I love Allen Ginsberg. I want to say I don’t know where this unending fascination with this man comes from, but I guess that would be a lie. He showed me the capability of how raw, how blatantly honest, and how personal poetry can be, and not in any of that confessional crap sense. There was something about Ginsberg talking about his numerous fucks and peoples’ assholes that captivated me – there was some humor, some truth, and a lot of literature. He made blowjobs poetic – who does that, even? There’s something in the way his poetic anecdotes of his own personal life that reminded me of my own friends, and the adolescent adventures and late night talks we would have. I loved it.

With that being said, those personal details, the chronicles of the Beat generation, and the relationships between front members like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassidy, Burroughs, Corso, Carr, and Huncke, and so on and so forth, are what I want to explore and illustrate. I want to create a poetry project that incorporates multimodal, primary sources from the Beats, a collection of poetry that feels authentic, engaging, and a little dirty, something that embodies the spirit of the literary movement. Additionally, I want to draw inspiration from one of my favorite books of poetry, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. In that book, Ondaatje captures this myth that the Wild West has built of Billy the Kid and his world, whether he was a real sharpshooter or not. Ondaatje uses letters, comic strips, pictures, and newspaper clippings to add layers to the character. In the same vein, I want to do that with Ginsberg and his world – however, what better way to add dimension to poetry than by making it digital poetry?

By making this project digital, the multimodality is greater. The incorporation of audio, moving visuals, transitions, backgrounds, hypertext, and so forth, can add to what I want to accomplish in this collection of poetry.

However!

My biggest concern on what I’m doing is always this: is what I’m doing worth it? Is it adding to the literary conversation, the discourse of the Beats? Is it interesting enough? Who wants to read this shit besides other Beat-obsessed freaks like myself?

I want this poetry to connect with people who don’t even know what the Beat generation is. But, what is it I’m trying to say with the poems? Am I trying to say something more about the significance of the self-prophecy and legend Ginsberg had built himself to be? Or is it something else? I guess, in the end, I’m concerned about having the poetry speak out to something, as opposed to just nothing.

As of right now, though, I feel a little stuck. Mostly, it’s because I’m still waiting on important books regarding the Beat generation. But then again, my hands might feel a little tied because I’m just a bit afraid. This project, without a doubt, will be near and dear to my heart, if/when I start doing it – I just want it to be something that is more relevant than to myself, is all.